WARMIWANUSCA, Peru — Porters on the famed Inca Trail trek to the jungle-shrouded ruins of Machu Picchu recall the fleet-footed chasqui — Inca messengers who darted over the vast road network of South America's most powerful empire.
Chewing wads of stimulating coca leaves and trading quips in Quechua, the ancient language of the Incas, they sprint up the centuries-old, ruin-dotted path at dizzying heights in the Andes.
But instead of carrying news or fresh seafood delicacies from the coast, they haul propane tanks, camping equipment and four days of food for wealthy tourists from worlds away — all for as little as $8 a day.
Peruvian law permits only 500 people to set out each day on the Inca Trail to Peru's top tourist destination, Machu Picchu — and nearly 300 of them are porters. Many complain that they are underpaid for their backbreaking labor.
Tourism to the ancient Inca ruins is booming. Some 140,000 people — tourists, porters, guides and cooks — did the hike in 2007, compared with fewer than 20,000 in 1998, according to park director Fernando Astete.
Peruvian law requires visitors to pay for a guided, catered tour, and what was once a backpackers' trek now costs at least $420.
But travelers be warned: pay much less — guides in Cuzco offer trips for as low as $350 — and the tour operator is likely cutting corners, at the expense of those who make the arduous, high-altitude trek accessible to so many — the Indian porters.
Despite the low pay, the jobs are highly coveted in the poor, rural Andean region.
"It's hard work, but without tourism there would be no jobs," Faustino Quispe, a porter with Continental Tours, told me when I caught up with him on a stretch of steep stone steps.
The pay is "very little, just enough for our families," said Quispe, a wiry man of 34 with a weathered face that makes him look closer to 50. The money helps supplement the food they are able to harvest from their small plots in the Sacred Valley.
The camping equipment slung in a blue tarp from his shoulders dwarfed my backpack, yet I struggled to keep up with him as he and his crew raced to set up camp ahead of their group of hikers.
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A 2003 law mandated a minimum wage for porters roughly equivalent to $15 a day, with a load no more than 57 pounds. That created a slight improvement in porters' pay and working conditions.
"Everything has changed in the past 10 years," Flabio Letona, a porter on my trek with Llama Path tour agency, told me as we rested at our campsite on the trail.
Through a mouthful of coca leaves — chewed to ward off altitude sickness and fatigue — Letona told me that he started working as a porter in the 1990s and still hauls cargo on the knee-crunching 20-mile trail at the age of 55.
Letona, like many other porters, is from the Sacred Valley, where locals live humbly off small plots of land in the shadow of several major Inca sites. He proudly told me that his children learn to read and write in their native Quechua language at the local public school.
"Before, we were carrying 130 to 150 pounds and making 15 nuevo soles a day," he said, a sum roughly equivalent to $4.50 in the late 1990s.
But a fair wage and working conditions are the exception on the trail.
I caught up to Victor, 22, as he labored alone on the final ascent to Warmiwanusca, Quechua for "Dead Woman's Pass," the grisly name for the trail's highest point at 13,779 feet.
He refused to give me his full name because he said his employer — Inca Trail Peru — has fired porters in the past for talking to tourists about conditions and pay.
The Sacred Valley native said he was carrying over-regulation weight — 66 pounds — for $9 dollars a day and complained bitterly about not getting enough food.
Unlike porters with other agencies, Victor didn't have a water bottle and his dry, cracked toes jutted out from the end of worn-down sandals, covered in dust from the trail.
Jorge Villasante, Peru's vice labor minister, acknowledges that enforcing the 2003 law is a problem.
The Labor Ministry's inspections of the trail in June of 2007 found that some 80 percent of tour agencies were violating the law — their porters had overloaded packs, inadequate food rations and poor sleeping conditions.
"Every agency reports that they pay their workers the minimum wage, but we know from talking to porters that many receive only $8 or $9," Villasante said in an interview.
But Villasante believes weigh stations at the start of the trail and fines of up to $1,075 for tour operators that violate the law are slowly improving porters' conditions.
Jose Antonio Gongora, 39, founder of Llama Path tour agency, believes it is up to tour operators themselves to improve porters' conditions, rather than relying on what he calls a corrupt and inefficient government.
Gongora started on the trail as a porter in 1992, working his way up the ranks to a guide, before founding his own agency in 2004.
Porters frequently carry 90 pounds because their employer knows workers at the weigh station, Gongora said.
He said the money from fines should be used to help exploited porters.
"Why not force a company that is operating incorrectly to use the fine to buy clothes for all of their porters?" Gongora told me back in the Llama Path office in Cuzco.
Llama Path and SAS Travel were the only agencies I saw on the trail that outfit their porters with matching sport-grade uniforms and hiking boots.
Llama Path porters were also the only ones I spoke to who receive medical insurance. Porter Letona proudly told me that he injured his right foot hiking the trail last year but didn't pay a dime for treatment.
In the past, when they got hurt working for other agencies, the companies would say "See you," Fredy Condori, 31, Llama Path's head porter, said as he displayed his staff's medical insurance forms.
"The food was terrible," Condori said, recalling his past experiences. "In four days we didn't eat much and when we slept on the ground the water seeped through. It was a disaster."
Condori, who is the representative of Llama Path's workers in a 6,000-strong porter union based in Cuzco, said such conditions are still common on the trail.
Llama Path is trying to change that culture and turn the work of a porter into a stable, protected occupation. Gongora and Condori have trained some 85 porters to hike on fixed rotations, bought them medical insurance and worked to improve food rations and sleeping conditions.
"The idea is to humanize the work" and to "provoke change in other agencies," Gongora said.
But such an operational shift isn't easy, or cheap. "It requires a lot of money," Gongora said, adding that Llama Path wasn't able change its operations and improve porter conditions until this year, its fifth.
"For a porter there's no rain, no sun and no cold, so we have to do all we can to provide them with the facilities and conditions they need," Gongora said.
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